Prospects of the Chuguyiv observatory after the occupation

Chuguyiv observational station of the Institute of Astronomy of V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University was under occupation for six months. During this time, considerable damage was done to it. Fortunately, some of the key equipment was saved, and scientists are now looking for a way to resume their work.

Чугуївська спостережна станція постраждала від тварин
Some animals damaged the Chuguyiv observational station.

Russian vandals in the observatory

In September 2022, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated the Chuguyiv observational station of the Institute of Astronomy of the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, which is also called the Grakove observatory (after the name of the neighboring village).

The observatory is located in the Chuguyiv district of the Kharkiv region, near the highway connecting the second largest city of Ukraine (Kharkiv) with Donbas. Before the large-scale invasion, it was one of the largest centers of astronomical science in Ukraine. However, at the beginning of March 2022, this institution got under occupation for the long six months.

All this time, instead of Ukrainian scientists, heavily armed vandals operated there, having broken into all the administrative and scientific premises of the observatory. They looted it completely. They stole all electronic equipment and all the things of any value. The power supply system was critically damaged. Unbelievably, the occupiers even took away the supply of coal for the boiler house located on the territory of the institution.

Стан обсерваторії після візиту російських варварів
The state of the observatory after the visit of the Russian savages. Photo by observatory employees

As for the things the “liberators” did not deem valuable, they simply destroyed them. Inside the premises, the Russians left behind a complete mess — the traces of their everyday life for all those months in the form of dry rations and containers with fuses for grenades. Meanwhile, scientific instruments suffered grave destruction.

The occupying troops and militants of the so-called DPR and LPR turned the scientific institution into a military base. Firing points for snipers were set up in the attics of the buildings, and a shooting range was set up on the territory of the observatory, where observatory equipment was used as targets.

What was destroyed by the “second strongest army in the world”

Before the war, employees of the Chuguyiv observational station were actively engaged in scientific work. According to Vadym Kaidash, director of the Astronomy Research Institute of Kharkiv University, the observatory had four main areas: astrometry and stellar astronomy, research of small bodies of the Solar System, astrophysics, and research of the Moon and planets.

Територія спостережної станції
The territory of the observation station with administrative buildings

In total, four main scientific objects are located on the territory of the observational station: the 70-cm AZT-8 telescope, the pavilion of the 40-cm Baker-Schmidt telescope, the pavilion of the automatic video-spectral optical patrol and the pavilion of the 25-cm optical telescope ORI25.

Perhaps the main instrument of the AZT-8 observatory suffered the most. It is located in a rotating tower, which ensures accurate targeting of the star or planet being observed. The savages stole the electric drives that ensured this, and smashed control units.

Купол башти телескопу АЗТ-8
The dome of the AZT-8 telescope tower was pierced by shells’ fragments. Photo of observatory employees

The dome of the telescope was pierced by projectile fragments in several places. The telescope itself was also damaged. The Russians removed the most important element from it and shot it in the shooting range —it was a special PZZ-matrix, which is absolutely necessary for observation.

The same fate befell another instrument — the Baker-Schmidt observation telescope. From the pavilion in which it was located, the soldiers of the “second strongest army in the world” stole the electric drives that moved the roof, so at least from the beginning of June 2022, the telescope stood in the open sky. In addition, its CCD matrix was also used as a target for shooting exercises.

Оптика телескопу не постраждала
The optics of the telescope were not damaged. Photo by the observatory employees

The station housed a meteor patrol, an automatic installation of five video cameras that constantly scanned the sky for meteors in order to analyze their composition and direction of entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Russians destroyed this installation, having looted all the cameras and the computers that controlled them.

“Now we have no possibility to observe small bodies (asteroids, comets, meteors). The pilot project of a robotic telescope with remote control is not working. The infrastructure for observation, management, storage and data transmission has been destroyed,” Vadym Kaidash says, the director of the Astronomy Research Institute of the Kharkiv University. He says that scientists are trying to compensate for the lack of telescopes by cooperating with foreign colleagues, using their observational and computing capabilities.

Is revival possible?

Despite all this, the staff of the Research Institute make every effort to restore the observatory, after the occupation. First it was extremely difficult to do this, because the territory remained mined, debris from rockets and unexploded shells were found on it. However, as early as last winter scientists started fundraising for the most urgent needs: preservation of premises and equipment, so that weather conditions and criminals should not destroy it completely.

Камери метеорного патруля, викрадені окупантами
Meteor patrol cameras stolen by the invaders. Photo by observatory employees

“Our funding is being gradually and methodically reduced with the prospect of zeroing it out. We relocated the equipment that survived, and put the rest out of service. The windows and the roof were patched. But there is no heating and electricity yet. Penny by penny, we are raising money for restoration. Soon we will give an interim report about our spending.” — says the leading researcher of the Research Institute of Astronomy of the Kharkiv University Viktor Korokhin

As for now, the most urgent rescue works has been completed. However, astronomers need more funds to start rebuilding the observatory. The total needs only for the restoration of damaged instruments amount to about 6 million hryvnias (about $ 160 000).

However, the current stage of restoration of the Chuguyiv observational station is only the beginning of its revival and transformation into a modern scientific institution, which Ukraine will need after victory. And the key question at the moment is whether it will be possible to keep the researchers who will work in it.

“About a quarter of the employees are in Kharkiv. The rest are in safer places in Ukraine and abroad. I mostly work at home, for I’m dealing mostly with outer space. I go to the Institute about once a week.” — Korokhin says.

ПЗС-матриці телескопів, розстріляні росіянами
CCD arrays of telescopes shot by the Russians. Photo by observatory employees.

Staff training takes a lot of time, these are rare specialists, currently many of them have left Ukraine. Whether they will return depends not only on whether it gets safe here, but also on the availability of government funding, which allow people to explore the space while their basic needs are met, and they do not have to think what to eat tomorrow.

According to Viktor Korokhin, there are people in the country who are right now destroying all the relics of Ukrainian science under excuse of war. “Honestly, I have one hope that when Ukraine is accepted into the EU, they will force our government to allocate reasonable money for science, according to European standards.” — he confesses.